Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and the second part Adhara refers to anything we ‘take in’ by ourselves, such as the various sights, sounds and smells our senses take in continuously. When sitting for a meditation practice, this is likely to be the first thing we do when we think we’re meditating; we focus on ‘drawing in’.
The phrase ‘sense withdrawal’ could conjure up images of the ability to actually switch our senses ‘off’ through concentration, which is why this aspect of practice is often misunderstood. Instead of actually losing the ability to hear and smell, to see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of mind so that we become so absorbed in what it is we’re focusing on, that the things outside of ourselves no longer bother us and we’re able to meditate without becoming easily distracted. Experienced practitioners may be able to translate pratyahara into everyday life – being so concentrated and present to the moment at hand, that things like sensations, and sounds don’t easily distract the mind.
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga as explained by Patanjali, and is the bridging force between external and internal yoga practices. The first four limbs of yoga are more external. They consist of yama, which includes non-harming and truthfulness, niyama, which constitutes duties and tasks that can lead to a healthy life, and asana and pranayama. The practice of pratyahara allows us to move into the last three limbs of yoga, which are internal: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (total absorption).
The practice of turning our attention inward may first focus on the way we’re breathing, I often break it down into the subtlest layers when I'm teaching students. The sound of the breath, the movement of the body with the breath, the temperature of the breath, noticing if the breath is slow and deep or shallow and jaded. These are quite a few ways which can help you to explore mindfulness within your practice and over time, sense withdrawal. Even throughout the movement and flows of sweaty sequences, we notice the breath, we listen, we focus and we are there, in the moment, alone with ourselves and our complete senses.
How do you cultivate pratyahara your own practice? Since pratyahara involves moving away from your racing thoughts and coming to a place of inner stillness, the next time you’re in a yoga class and attempting a challenging pose, notice whether anxiety or fear arise. You may even fantasise about coming out of the pose. But rather than seeking escape, move deeper into the pose using your breath and drishti (focal point). This will lead to an awareness of your physical body’s ability to sustain deep postures. Withdrawing from your busy thoughts will lead you to discover more subtle things happening in your body, mind and spirit. You can also cultivate pratyahara in savasana using techniques like yoga nidra, which can take you into a deeper state of relaxation and quietness.
In meditation, move toward pratyahara through breathing (pranayama) techniques. Simply focusing on your inhales and exhales will begin to quiet your mind and the outside world. Another technique is visualization, which can quiet external stimuli. You might visualize a vast landscape, like an ocean or a field. The absence of details in these kinds of scenes will help you from becoming distracted. Beginning your meditation in a quiet place will also allow you to move into pratyahara with ease.
Pratyahara isn’t just good for your yoga practice. It’s a useful skill that will influence your whole life. In our overstimulating modern world, we easily slip into noise, distraction and the lure of media and technology. We are always grasping onto our phones and we crowd our lives with diversions like television, games, alcohol and even food. Though none of these things are inherently bad, they can dominate our lives without us even noticing.
Cultivating pratyahara keeps us calm, at ease, in the moment and mindful of our self awareness and connection to all things around us. The subtle things we miss, how beautiful would it be to move through life surrounded by quiet, simplicity and control.
It's possible, it just takes practice!